Chinese New Year is upon us, and as a Chinese temporary resident in Canada, I’d like to share some stories and traditions as we enter the Year of the Pig.

First off, the naming issue – Chinese New Year is also called Spring Festival or Lunar New Year, because most of the time Chinese New Year’s Day is the closest new moon to Lichun (“Start of Spring”) in the lunar calendar.

The 12 zodiac signs

One of the first things you may notice around Chinese New Year is that each year is associated with an animal sign. For example, 2018 is the Year of Dog, and 2019 the Year of Pig.

Red lanterns decorations on the tree in my hometown in Southern China
Red lanterns decorations on the tree in my hometown in Southern China.

Each person also belongs to one of the signs. If you have a secret interest in some exotic fortune-telling, you might have already checked your Chinese zodiac sign.

Different from the Western zodiac which corresponds with months and constellations, the Chinese one uses the year as a unit and is solely made up of animal signs. Animals in the 12-year cycle are: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig, each ascribing different personalities and characteristics.

Photo by Minyi Huang.
Red and gold envelopes. Photo by Minyi Huang

How did the order of the zodiac come about and why those twelve animals? There are different versions and tales in the history.

The most widespread legend kids in China learned about is the Great Race. To select animals on the calendar, the Jade Emperor decided to include the first 12 who crossed a river to reach the meeting.

The cat and rat believed the fastest way to get there was by hopping on the back of the ox, who was known as kind and hardworking. On the race day, the cat couldn’t wake up (or some say the rat didn’t wake the cat up) and missed the race, which explained why cats and rats don’t get along.

The rat, on the other hand, crossed the river on the back of the ox and quickly jumped off to the emperor, becoming the first to arrive.

The dragon didn’t come in first because he was held back bringing rains for a local village. Although known as a swimmer, the dog came in late because it spent too much time playing in the water.

The “lazy little pig,” however, stopped halfway to eat and nap, and barely made it to the last spot.

Because 2019 is the Year of Pig, you might have already seen lots of red/golden pig decorations in Chinese stores and restaurants. If you decide to experience and share in the festivities, prepare anything related to pigs, for example, paper-cuts in red, emojis for chats and a paean of the piggy lifestyle – after all, they know how to enjoy life.

Chinese New Year Celebrations

Chinese New Year celebrations last around 7 – 15 days, and customs vary from province to province. There are variations even within the province. Generally speaking, here is a list:

  • House-cleaning and new year shopping before New Year’s Eve
  • Putting up couplets
  • Family gathering
  • Staying up late on NYE
  • Setting off firecrackers
  • Ancestral worship
  • Visiting family and friends
  • Giving lucky money to younger generations
  • The Lantern Festival signalling the end of the celebration

Prepping

The specific date of house-cleaning varies in different regions, but house cleaning is one of the essentials for New Year prep.

Dust in Chinese language is pronounced the same as obsolescence, so cleaning the house expresses the hope to sweep away bad luck.

Door gods. Photo by Minyi Huang.
Door Gods such as these are common across China. Photo by Minyi Huang

Just like the tradition of putting up and decorating Christmas trees in the west, Chinese people also celebrate the most important festival of the year with decorations.

Red items such as couplets, up-side down “Fu” character, Door Gods are common across China. Couplets are concise and ingenious blessings written in Chinese calligraphy. The picture of Door God(s) is placed on the door to protect the family from evil spirits.

“Fu” means happiness in Chinese, and the upside-down orientation in Chinese is pronounced the same as arrive – so an upside down “Fu” character means happiness arrives.

New Year’s Eve (Chuxi)

Every year, the largest human migration in the world happens before Chinese New Year’s Eve in mainland China. The New Year’s Eve dinner, or the family reunion dinner, is probably the most important part of the festival.

No matter how far people are apart, we would always try to go back home and celebrate Chuxi with the family (well, maybe not with an ocean apart and midterm exams and such).

What goes on the dinner table should be planned carefully too – you can always find wishes/blessings incorporated in the dishes. Fish is almost always a must-have, because it is pronounced the same as surplus, expressing the hope for financial surplus every year. Romaine lettuce is also a regular, because it shares similar pronunciation, as you have guessed, with making fortunes.

Red and gold decorations are everywhere during Chinese New Year. Photo by Minyi Huang.
Red and gold decorations are everywhere during Chinese New Year. Photo by Minyi Huang.

The New Year’s Eve Gala on TV has been popular for decades since it first aired in 1983. In recent years, though, it becomes more of a background program that people tune in and out of during their conversations and smartphone time.

New Year’s Eve is probably the only day of the year that parents explicitly allow little kids to stay up late, and so was the best day for me when I was little.

Counting down to the new year, and 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… firecrackers splash and squelch, lighting up the grinning faces of the kids in red cotton-padded jackets. Kids are screaming, dogs barking, parents cheering, and grandparents standing aside with an amiable smile. It is as if the future does not matter as long as the present moment is enjoyable.

In between these lively and exciting moments, the New Year arrives.

Waking up on the first day of new year and feeling like a nice shower? Chinese mums will tell you not to.

Any sweeping and showering are deemed unlucky because you should not wash away the good luck of the new year. Hair cutting, using sharp tools, breaking stuff, arguing, swearing and saying unlucky things are also taboos during the festival.

It could sound superstitious in some way, but it is more of a tradition and a series of acts that expresses good hopes more than superstitions.

Flowers are a big part of the New Year decor. Photo by Minyi Huang.
Flowers are a big part of the New Year decor. Photo by Minyi Huang.

Greetings of Xin Nian Kuai Le or Kung Hei Fat Choi (in Cantonese) await children and unmarried young adults visiting relatives in the New Year. They will receive the most anticipated gift – lucky money/red envelope.

In some regions, the lucky money should be kept under the pillow until the celebrations are over. Red envelopes are also distributed between bosses, employees and co-workers. Nowadays, as digital red pockets become increasingly popular, people can send lucky money to families and friends who are away.

A romantic ending

The Lantern Festival signals the last day of the celebration and happens in the first full moon of the lunar new year.

In ancient times, girls weren’t allowed to walk around on their own, but the night of Lantern Festival is one of the few days to meet more people. Many beautiful romantic poems were written associated with the day. It is a day of colours, lights, friendships and romantic acquaintances.

Then we are off to embrace a new year.

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